Ta-Nehisi Coates review by Robert Bryan
Whatever hope there is of ending racism in this country rests, and has always rested, on solidarity. Yet Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling book Between the World in Me paints a universe in which solidarity leads nowhere. To Coates, racism is an immovable truth and there is no way out. This is not a message to encourage uprising, but to cement our racial caste system as a permanent fact of life rather than the avoidable product of historical forces. By presenting oppression an inescapable and irreversible fact of black life, Coates undercuts a crucial opportunity for cutting across racial lines in the pursuance of common goals like ensuring a decent standard of living for all Americans. Liberals like Coates like to point out that many victims of police brutality such as Sandra Bland and Coates’ straight-laced college friend Prince were privileged, as if there were no correlation between brutality victims and class, or as if member of the black bourgeoisie like Coates, while by no means immune to racism or violence, are nevertheless protected somewhat from the carceral state when compared with their working class inner-city brethren.
About halfway through Between the World and Me, there is a passage that does a great deal to explain why the book – despite its many lyrical gifts – is ultimately a disappointment. The book takes the form of a letter to his son, and Coates talks movingly of the sense of responsibility that being a father has given him:
The truth is that I owe you everything I have. Before you, I had my questions but nothing beyond my own skin the game, and that was really nothing at all because I was a young man, and not yet clear of my own human vulnerabilities. But I was grounded and domesticated by the plain fact that should I now go down, I would not go down alone.
Here the reader can see Coates in his element, rendering the complex emotions of fatherhood in fluid, concise prose. Even better, it seems like the last sentence opens up the possibility of building alliances beyond family or even race, towards something that might be truly transformative. But rather than follow this thread, he quickly backs away from it:
This is what I told myself, at least. It was comforting to believe that the fate of my body and the bodies of my family were under my powers…This is what they had told me all my life. It was the language of survival, a myth that helped us cope with the human sacrifice that finds us no matter our manhood. As though our hands were ever our own. As though plunder of dark energy was not at the heart of our galaxy. And the plunder was there, if I wished to see it.
I’m not sure how many times the words “body” and “plunder” appear in Coates’ book, but they seem to be his favorite words, reappearing every few pages and always invested with a near-mystical fatalism. But rather than contextualize this plunder, he treats it as an eternal fact – “dark energy…at the heart of our galaxy,” to use his comic book parlance – that removes any trace of agency from black people. According to his argument, heir bodies have never been “under [their] powers” and there’s little reason to believe they ever will be.
The bodies of slaves were indeed plundered, of course, and used for centuries to profit their white masters. White supremacy, according to the scholars Barbara and Karen Fields (whom Coates has voiced his admiration of) was an invention of the white ruling class to divide and conquer poor Americans who might band together across racial lines and rise up against economic injustice as they had during Bacon’s rebellion. By telling white people that their skin had value, members of the ruling class was able to split their natural class enemies into black and white – a process that continued through the so-called “southern strategy” into the Trump era.
But according to this theory, there is a way out. Fred Hampton pithily described the strategy that might succeed in overcoming racial and economic oppression in a 1969 speech at Olivet Church:
We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I'm talking about the white masses, I'm talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're going to fight racism with solidarity. We say you don't fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.
Hampton understood that his enemy was the capitalist, black or white, and that this enemy had to be “driven out of our community.” The speech, like many of the era, is full of exhortations and calls to action: we need to do this; we must do that. Between the World and Me offers no such encouragement, must less the hope of an eventual solution. This difference provides an important clue to why Hampton represented so much more of a threat to the white establishment.
Coates acknowledges that race is a fictional social construct, but like many of his points it vanishes into the ether as he’s making it. The larger point to make is that race in America is a social construct that results from the economic imperative to exploit (or plunder, as Coates says) black people (or bodies, in Coates’ words). This emphasis on referring constantly to the plunder of black bodies is in line with Coates’ depiction of race as something intractable and fundamentally real. Coates places far more emphasis on blackness of bodies than the will or power of black people, because though he acknowledges that the concept of race is man-made, he does not see it as something that man can erase. He does not seems to believe, therefore, that interracial solidarity or socialism is nearly as useful as Fred Hampton had us believe. In fact, Coates sometimes talks as if he believes the civil rights movement never accomplished much at all.
When Coates supports reparations along racial lines, he is reinforcing the lie of racial essentialism. How is race to be determined? By DNA testing? Would the one-drop rule have to be brought back to facilitate this purely race-based system of redistribution? Coates never acknowledges that even if every black person in America were to receive a check, economic exploitation would continue unabated and the working class (which would continue to be disproportionately black) would remain at the bottom of our wildly unequal class system. When Bernie Sanders recently came out against reparations in favor of a more robust systemic overhaul, Coates predictably criticized him for trying to organize along class lines rather than racial ones. Adolph Reed, Jr. described the problem with race-based wealth redistribution in his 2000 essay On Reparations, in which he wrote:
We are in one of those rare moments in American…when common circumstances of economic and social insecurity have strengthened the potential for building broad solidarity across race, gender and other identities around shared concerns of daily life…Concerns like access to quality health care, the right to a decent and dignified livelihood, affordable housing, quality education for all. These are objectives that can be pursued effectively only by struggling to unite a wide section of the American population who experience those concerns most acutely, the substantial majority of this population who have lost those essential social benefits or live in fear of losing them. And isn't it interesting that at such a moment the corporate-dominated opinion-shaping media discover and project a demand for racially defined reparations that cuts precisely against building such solidarity?
Despite the face that King supported the same expansion of the safety net that Sanders does, Coates would rather endorse a program that reduces the possibility of transformative interracial unity.
Surely Coates is familiar with the venomous racism directed at Mexican immigrants in this country, many of whom live on poverty wages and who are routinely scapegoated as job thieves (not to mention denigrated as rapists and criminals by Trump and his followers). Surely he knows about the Indian bodega clerks and Chinese nail salon workers and Jewish seamstresses and Appalachian farmers and all the myriad examples of struggling working class people in America – immigrants, day laborers, McDonald’s cashiers, Walmart clerks – who comprise the tapestry of our nation’s underclass. Surely he knows that the March on Washington was a march for jobs and against unemployment and that it was organized in part by the black socialist Bayard Rustin. And, being the student of black history that he is, he knows that it was organized in the offices of the National Urban League – then under the leadership of Whitney M. Young, who made economic equality a central part of his racial justice program.
But in the book, economic inequality doesn’t receive much attention. In the end, everything comes back to The Mecca – the nickname for Howard University’s campus quad. Coates credits The Mecca for nurturing his racial consciousness and black pride, describing it as a place where the rich variety of black beauty and intelligence was on full display. The real Mecca, of course, is the birthplace of Muhammad and a destination for millions of Muslim pilgrims who journey from around the world to perform the Hajj. And though Mecca was immortalized in The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a place where all Muslims can be treated as equal regardless of skin color, it is located in Saudi Arabia, a country that expels Jews and uses sharia law to justify all kinds of human rights violations against women, apostates, and dissidents. All of this is to say that the allure of spiritual salvation – however powerful on a personal level – should not trump the political implications of a segregated society, whether it be the Alabama of the 1950s or the South Africa of the 1980s or the Israel and Saudi Arabia of today.
It would be a mistake, however, to see Between the World and Me as a religious book. Its proper place is at the crossroads between two of America’s favorite genres: liberal punditry and personal essay. Cedric Johnson captures this well in his excellent Jacobin essay entitled An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals that Love Him:
That problem of replacing politics with public therapy endures to this day, and it flourishes in a context where social media linkages surrogate other historical forms of social interchange and collective action. Antiracist liberalism thrives in a context where the performance of self-loathing, outrage, and concern are easily traded public currency, instead of the more socially costly politics of public sacrifice and the redistribution of societal resources.
The book is not concerned with politics so much as the emotions of lived experience, which would be fine if Coates intended the book purely as a memoir. But by framing it as a political statement, he exposes the book’s weaknesses.
A central contradiction that has long plagued Coates’ career is the paradox of being a writer who tips his hat to black militancy while keeping both feet fully planted is the cozy world of NPR liberalism. And make no mistake: though Coates writes about the Baltimore ghetto in which he grew up, his audience is not so much the Baltimore project dweller as the white liberal who loves watching Baltimore drug dealers on The Wire because of how authentic it feels. And that’s why a certain variety of liberal love Coates more than they love Jonathan Chait or Melissa Harris Perry or some other middle-of-the-road liberal – it’s because he seems so authentic. It’s because he talks about love and sex and weed and food and rap music with all the sensuality and lyricism those subjects demand, but which seems to be mostly absent from the vanilla world of liberal punditry.
There is a part of Hi, Mom! – Brian De Palma’s severely underrated countercultural satire from 1970 – that deals with the production of a radical theater production called “Be Black, Baby!” The performance art piece involves a theater troupe of black radicals terrorizing an audience of bourgeois white liberals, at one point even simulating the rape of a female spectator. The militants subject the audience to all matter of insults, taunts, and threats. After the play is over, a white audience member tells a TV reporter what she made of the the play: “Clive Owens was really right – it was some experience.” A fellow attendee with a big smile on his face chimes in, “It was a great show, great theater…except they should have called it ‘humiliate the honky.’” This is an exaggerated version of the masochism that defines Coates’ white liberal audience and helps explain his popularity. While liberals do not want to be told to take to the streets or form a union or contribute somehow to the collective task of creating a more egalitarian society. They want to be shaken up a bit, sure, maybe even scolded, but that’s about it. Coates allows them to adopt a “socially conscious” persona simply by reading his words, without ever having to take the extra step of dedicating themselves to mass movements.
One of the core problems with the book lies in its effort to walk a razor’s edge between memoir and polemic. Drawing lessons from own one’s life is fine, of course, and many of the lessons Coates learned – to fear the police, for example – illuminate wider political issues. But when Coates talks of unity it is rarely of the interracial variety, and when he talks bodies being plundered he describes the process as if it were inevitable. There is no way out for Coates, no respite from the American nightmare he so vividly describes.
What is remarkable is not that Coates has found success as a black essayist in America; after wall, Baldwin found even greater success in this country over half a century ago by making many of the same points. What’s remarkable is that Coates has written a book that counters the naïve optimism of Obama’s “hope and change” rhetoric with a view of contemporary racism so bleak often veers into outright apathy. What’s more, he has undermined calls for redistribution across class lines at a time when large swaths of the left have once again began demanding sweeping social democratic reforms. The promise of King’s job march is nowhere to be found, nor is Hampton’s call for socialist solidarity. Instead of advocating for renewed courage in the face of continued opposition, Coates advocates for absolutely nothing but that most milquetoast of goals: awareness. But at a time when the collective rage of the underclass threatens to overturn the status quo, there is no room for apathy or nihilism. Theory without practice is hopeless, and awareness without a movement is nothing but a dead end.